reports from New York
In spite of problems on and off the court, Steffi Graf remains on course to win her 18th Grand Slam singles title at the United States Open here. Whether she can raise her game for today's final after struggling through a semi-final against Gabriela Sabatini 6-4, 7-6, in an hour and 37 minutes is open to conjecture.
Graf, who has had so much trouble coping with a chronic back condition, was hampered by a blistered foot yesterday, when her forehand was often less than 100 per cent and her serve failed to subdue her Argentinian opponent.
It was their 40th meeting, with Graf leading 28-11 and having won the previous seven. The last - 6-1, 6-0 in the quarter-finals of the French Open in June - suggested that the German would have an easier task than she did.
Sabatini, who made an edgy start, had break points in the seventh and ninth games of the opening set, only to be broken for 6-4. The ninth seed then lost a 3-1 lead in the second set, but did manage to force the tie- break. Here again the Argentinian led 3-1, but double-faulted for the fifth time to allow Graf back into the shoot-out at 3-3. Graf won it 7- 5.
Today's men's singles semi-finals - Andre Agassi v Boris Becker and Pete Sampras v Jim Courier - stir the memory before a ball is struck. Becker's mugging of Agassi in the last four at Wimbledon was one of the surprises of the season, and Sampras's emotional win against Courier in the quarter- finals of the Australian Open ranks among the great matches. It is the also first occasion that the four men's semi-finalists have all been ranked No 1.
We must hope that the expected arrival of rain does not disrupt the flow of what promises to be an exciting climax to the tournament. Crowding so much into so-called "Super Saturday" - sandwiching the women's singles final between the men's semis at the behest of television - is hardly sensible at the best of times.
Courier is the unexpected element. His 14th seeding reflects the inconsistency of his form, along with lapses of commitment to the sport since the disappointment of finishing runner-up at both Wimbledon (to Sampras) and the French Open (to Sergi Bruguera) in 1993.
Intermittently, the back-court slugger from Florida has reminded his critics of the force he was when he supplanted Becker at the head of the game three and a half years ago. On Thursday night, Courier's presence flustered the usually composed Michael Chang into squandering opportunities to win each of the three sets he lost. The fifth seed had four set points in the opening set, one in the second, and double-faulted when serving for the third at 5-4. Another double-fault gave Courier the match, 7-6, 7-6, 7-5.
Although Chang was the more frustrated of the two, Courier received a warning for swearing in Spanish ("I didn't realise there were so many bilingual people"), and afterwards he accused his opponent of glaring at him as he prepared to receive serve. "Michael is always trying to do whatever it takes to win," he said.
A year ago, Courier lost in the second round after taking a break, suggesting at the time that he might be inclined to walk away from the game. "I have seen so many guys that walk away when they are 24, 25, 26, and even if you walk away just for a few months and put the rackets away, it's never the same when you come back. I think it's a mental thing. I don't think you can afford to let go."
The last of Courier's 14 matches against Sampras (Sampras leads 11-3 and they have each beaten the other here once) was the epic in Melbourne in January this year. At the time, Sampras's coach, Tim Gullikson, was on his way back to Chicago, having been told that he had three months to live because of a brain tumour, a prognosis later revised.
Having fought back from two sets down, Sampras began to think about Gullikson. A spectator shouted: "Do it for your coach, Pete." Sampras imagined Gullikson lying on a hospital bed, crying. He could not get it out of his mind. Tears streamed down Sampras's face for practically the whole of the final set, and yet he conceded only two points on his serve and triumphed, 6- 7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.